The Dubai Air Show closed on Thursday, with major aviation and defense companies clinching billion-dollar deals. But while the likes of Airbus and Boeing battled it out for industry dollars, the overtones of geopolitical battles could be seen throughout the week-long event.
The biennial exhibition saw the participation of defense and military hardware from countries like the United States, Russia and Israel. Israel displayed its hardware for the first time at the show following its normalization of diplomatic ties with the United Arab Emirates last year. The state-owned Israel Aerospace Industries company showed off a range of manned and unmanned naval and aerial drones.
The show came on the heels of a visible display of coordination among the US, Israel and its Gulf allies in the weeks before. Israel, which recently was folded into the US Central Command (CENTCOM) combatant command, participated in a recent naval exercise with the US, UAE and Bahrain which was intended to send a message to Iran about its activity in Gulf waters.
CENTCOM has purview over the Middle East, North Africa and parts of Asia, and Israel had quietly been working with CENTCOM for several years even as it sat officially in the US European Command, until normalization with Gulf states opened the door for a transition. Now, Israel is moving full steam ahead toward its complete integration into CENTCOM.
“The new mechanism relies on plenty of things, but it’s mainly contingency,” an IDF official told The Media Line. “Our readiness and our ability to be interoperable with our allies to be ready for something quick is our first priority. And surrounding that, we are now building everything that we need: communication, ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) exercises and regional opportunities led by our counterparts.”
Michael Pregent, a former US intelligence officer who served in multiple roles at CENTCOM, says Israel’s integration into CENTCOM opens the door to a number of positive developments that won’t be nearly as visible as the command’s recent naval display.
“It breaks down some of the firewalls, with Israel being able to directly feed into the CENTCOM intel cycle on common threats, like Iran and Syria. CENTCOM is where the US military experts, intel experts and analysts go. The DIA (Defense Intelligence Agency), NSA (National Security Agency) and CIA are all tied into CENTCOM,” Pregent said.
The IDF official who spoke with The Media Line pointed to CENTCOM’s expertise in the designing and developing of force build-up, as well as its relationship-building and networking strengths, as traits that Israel intends to take advantage of and learn from.
The Media Line learned that Israel recently took part in expeditionary exercises with Task Force 515, formally known as Naval Amphibious Force, Task Force 51/5th Marine Expeditionary Brigade, which falls under Marine Corps Forces Central Command, based in Bahrain. Additionally, the IDF took part in a CENTCOM exercise focused on quick-response urban warfare, involving close-fire support in a number of environments, including air, navy, ground and underground.
Still, not all is well among Israel’s new CENTCOM partners. While attendees watched the skies for aerial displays, political analysts were looking for signals from officials.
Among the big topics of discussion was the stalled $23 billion US-UAE deal to sell a fleet of F-35s and drones to the Emiratis, an agreement reached in the waning hours of the administration of former US President Donald Trump, partly in an effort to neutralize Iran and to shore up the UAE’s commitment to the Abraham Accords, which normalized relations between Jerusalem and Abu Dhabi and paved the way for cooperation and trade across nearly all sectors. If completed, it would mark the first sale of the F-35 and US-made armed drones to any Arab country.
Previously, US export regulations prevented Washington from selling lethal drones to any of its Arab allies. And an F-35 sale to the Gulf desert sheikhdom was initially a non-starter due to a legal obligation for the US to reserve its most advanced weapons sales for Israel, in order to uphold Israel’s so-called qualitative military edge in the Middle East. But Israel reportedly signed off on the sale in the wake of its normalization with the UAE. The export restrictions on armed drones were loosened by the Trump administration in July of 2020 to allow certain drones – including the lethal Reapers – to be sold to friendly Arab states.
“Regional actors like Iran continue to pursue game-changing capabilities and technologies. They threaten US allies and partners, and they challenge regional stability. We will work with our regional partners to deter Iranian aggression and threats to sovereignty and territorial integrity,” Mira Resnick, deputy assistant secretary of state for regional security in the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs of the US State Department, told reporters in a briefing from Dubai.
“These emerging capabilities are real threats. We want to be able to help our partners address those real threats. And this is really where security cooperation is the most important component, making sure that our partners have what they need to be able to defend themselves, taking a real hard look at defense capability requirements, and seeing where the United States can play that critical role, both through security cooperation and through security assistance,” Resnick said.
Iran’s influence extends throughout the region, including into Lebanon, where the Iranian-backed terror organization Hizbullah has played a significant role in the country’s destabilization and economic freefall. The Media Line asked Resnick about the recent visit to Washington by the commander of the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), Gen. Joseph Aoun, who is warning that his military may collapse.
“Our discussions with our Lebanese counterparts really focus on the urgent moment, the urgent crises that Lebanon is facing today, obviously all stemming from the political decision that has really kept the country in limbo but has real consequences for the people of Lebanon and for their security forces, particularly the ISF (Internal Security Forces) and the LAF. These are institutions that are really the only – they are the institutional counterweights to Hizbullah, and our support for the LAF and the ISF is really critical to make sure that we don’t see the worst that could happen in Lebanon. We are actively considering what our options are in order to support the LAF and the ISF and make sure that these are institutions that can survive, that can help bridge Lebanon in order to make those political decisions and make sure that their leadership is able to make the right political decisions for their people,” said Resnick.
Still, even with Iran’s hefty regional influence, Washington is reportedly concerned over the UAE’s ties to China, and fears the transfer of sensitive military hardware and know-how, as it continues to seek assurances, even from its most-trusted Gulf ally.
“We are tracking that the Biden-Harris administration intends to move forward with those proposed defense sales to the UAE, even as we continue consulting with the Emirati officials to ensure that we have unmistakably clear, mutual understandings with respect to Emirati obligations and actions before, during and after delivery. Those projection dates are far in the future for those sales, so, if implemented, we have some real-time to be able to consult. And I anticipate a continued, robust and sustained dialogue with the UAE to ensure that any defense transfers meet our mutual national security strategic objective to really build a stronger, interoperable, more capable security partnership while protecting US technology,” Resnick added.
Analysts pointed to the looming presence of Russian Sukhoi-75 aircraft at the air show, and the potential for the UAE and other allies like the Saudis to turn to other suppliers, or at least use the option as leverage, should the US continue delaying weapons sales to its partners.
“The United States remains the partner of choice of all of our partners and allies in the region,” Resnick said. “And it’s really because none of the strategic competitors are able to offer what the United States offers, which is a relationship, which is working with us on security cooperation. None of the strategic competitors are able, they’re not capable or willing to offer what the United States offers.”
“So, our partners and allies are well aware of that, and that is why they consistently choose the United States,” Resnick said, later alluding to the possibility of sanctions should allies purchase the Sukhoi-75, seen as a Russian alternative to the F-35 and projected to be on the market by 2026.